The Book of Human Skin
Two of my favorite youtubers: Danielle Kirsty and Bailey Sarian do their makeup while they tell the story of a crime that happened somewhere in the world. It’s an unusual combination of things, makeup and murder, but it works! Bailey’s is called Murder Mystery and Makeup and she uploads them on Mondays while Danielle uploads on Sundays and hers is called True Crime and Makeup. I suggest you check them out, if you’re like me and love learning about crime or if you just like watching people put on their makeup. Check them out! Or don’t. You grown. I can’t make you. Anyway, Bailey also does a little something called Dark History. This is a podcast she recently created that talks about the dark side of history. The ugly, gruesome, and sometimes heartbreaking stories of America’s history. You didn’t think that what we talked about in history class in high school was all of it did you?
Anyway, while listening to the Dark History upload for the week, I started wondering if there was anything wild about the history of books. There had to be something right? So, I did some digging and holy balls, you guys. I found a doozy. Did you know that there is a practice called Anthropodermic Bibliopegy where they make books out of human skin? Yes, you read that correctly. HUMAN SKIN. Pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head when I read about it. Let’s talk about it.
Anthropodermic Bibliopegy (what a name!) was a popular practice in the 19th century, but its origin dated back much earlier as early as the 15th century. It is the process of book binding using the skin of humans. When hearing this, you’d think that these books were created by the types of people that belong in a Criminal Minds episode, but they were your average 19th century doctor during a time where collecting rare books was a way of life.
In January of 1869 Dr. John Stockton Hough examined the emaciated corpse of Mary Lynch. After opening her chest cavity to examine what he thought was the cause of death, he saw an unusual mass in her pectoral muscle (that’s the boob for all of you that are unfamiliar with medical terms) and went in to take a closer look. Inside, he found countless tiny worms just swimming around making themselves at home. Instead of closing her up and going on about his business, Dr. Hough cut a piece of this woman’s skin and preserved it. Later he used it to bind three of his most prized books on women’s health. How’s that for a wow factor, huh? Whew.
The Bristol Records office in the UK contains a book that is also said to be made of skin. This book was made from the skin of the first man to be hanged at Bristol Gaol, which I believe is a prison. This man’s name was John Horwood and at the time of his death, he was only 18 years old. He was executed for the murder of Eliza Balsum. Which is a whole sad story by itself. I encourage you to google it if you have some time. Long story made short, Horwood’s corpse was dissected by surgeon Richard Smith during a public lecture. The surgeon then decided to have his skin tanned and used to bind a collection of papers about his court case. The cover of the book was embossed with skull and crossbones, with the words "Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood", meaning "the actual skin of John Horwood". People are creepy. Who looks at a body and decides: His skin would make a wonderful book cover. I mean WHAT?!
Another interesting case is the story of the murderer William Burke. Instead of digging up old corpses to sell for dissection at the hospitals, William Burke and his buddy William Hare decided to start offing people instead. They had up to 15 victims before they were caught. After Burke’s execution, it is said that a chunk of his skin went missing and then bloop! The book popped up for sale not too long after. The creation of this book followed a trend where prisoners were executed and their skin was used to bind books, as a way of punishing them even more for their crimes. In my humble opinion, that was a silly practice. The person is already dead so how could you punish them any further? They don’t know what’s going on. They’re dead. But whatever.
Harvard University recently revealed the history of one of their books. Des Destinees de l’Ame, which translates to Destinies of the Soul, is covered in the skin of a deceased female mental patient who died of natural causes. The author, Arsene Houssaye gave the book to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland in the 1880s. It was Dr. Bouland who carried out the task of binding the book. Harvard received it as a gift in the 1930s from a donor with a note attached. The note, translated by the University, explains that the book was bound in human skin parchment to preserve its elegance. If you look closely at the book, you can see the pores of the skin. SO CREEPY. I’d rather not have my books bound by skin, thank you very much. Paper is just fine.
Today, there are supposedly 50 books that people claim have been made from human skin. 30 of those books have been tested and only 18 have been confirmed to be made from human skin. The whole process gives me the creepy crawlies. As much as I love books and I love reading, I would absolutely NOT want a book made out of human skin. What do you guys think? Would you want a book made from the back slab of your grandma? Or perhaps a good chunk of your deceased relative’s thigh meat? Could make for an interesting story at dinner parties. Although I’m pretty sure you’d probably have a lot less friends after telling that story. Who knows? Tell me about your opinion in the comments! I’d love to know your thoughts. Until next time. Happy reading, babes!